Mayor lobbies for safe haven where addicts can inject heroin
Injection sites are fast becoming a reality
The mayor of Ithaca is proposing to institute the nation’s first organized injection facility, allowing heroin users a safe place to inject drugs into their bodies under the oversight of a nurse without legal repercussions, or possibility of arrest by the authorities.
Australia, Europe and Canada are already managing to curtail heroin overdoses with these medical centers, however in the U.S. even the very notion of such a measure faces inherent legal and political opposition. Mayor Svante Myrick is under the impression that this has to change and quickly.
“My father was a drug addict. He split from the family when I was 5, 6 years old,” the mayor said in an interview to the Associated Press. “I have watched for 20 years this system that just doesn’t work. We can’t wait anymore for the federal government. We have people shooting up in alleys. In bathroom stalls. And too many of them are dying.”
Myrick added that he will petition the New York’s Health Department to proclaim the heroin problem a state health crisis, which he elaborated would allow the city to advance the agenda without having the state legislature intercede. The mayor outlined his program to the AP prior to an official announcement set for Wednesday.
Once written off as absurd, injection sites are quickly gaining the approval of the public due to the alarming trend of increases of heroin related deaths. In New York, heroin overdoses catapulted from 186 in 2003 to 914 in 2012.
Ithaca itself accounted for three fatal overdoses and thirteen non-fatal overdoses in a three-week period during 2014, inciting city politicians to start searching for other options rather than just incarcerating users. The city which houses Ithaca College and Cornell University, is one of New York’s most progressive neighborhoods and is an ideal candidate for a new system, Myrick said.
The mayor argues that under the watchful eye of nurses and physicians users would have access to the antidote naloxone (narcan), in the event of an overdose. In addition, clean syringes would be available reducing the risk of contracting diseases. The mayor envisions the facility as a sort of homeopathic alternative which would also direct and encourage addicts to treatment and recovery centers if they were to be so inclined.
Myrick laid the groundwork for his initiative in conjunction with the legal community and police, prevailing against the naysayers such as elected district attorney, Gwen Wilkinson.
“What brought me around was the realization that this wouldn’t make it more likely that people will use drugs,” Wilkinson said. “What it would do is make it less likely that people will die in restaurant bathrooms.”
Police Chief John Barber is not as supportive and remains somewhat skeptical indicating that he was, “wary of supervised injection sites.”
Some components of the proposition don’t require state approval, such as the unveiling of a new city office dedicated to drug policy and youth mentorship which would provide the youth a more productive substitute to drug use. Myrick would also like to see police send low-level drug offenders to treatment rather than jail, embracing a tactic used in Seattle.
Canada ushered in one of the first injection facilities, known as “Insite,” which opened in Vancouver back in 2003. They receive close to 800 visitors per day with only about 10-20 overdosing, and amongst those overdoses no one has yet to die, according to Dr. Patricia Daly the chief medical health officer at Vancouver Coastal Health, the outfit that manages the facility. Daly admits,” these overdoses are completely reversible and that the reason people die is because they inject alone.”
Insite is granted most of its funding from government subsidies, but ran up against considerable resistance from officials in Ottawa. A 2011 Canadian Supreme Court decision mandated that federal officials cease antagonizing the facility, citing that it has saved lives “with no discernable negative impact.”
Incidentally, deaths from overdose were reduced by 35 percent in the general vicinity of the community after Insite was established, according to research by Brown University epidemiologist Brandon D.L. Marshall.
In America, state and federal laws make it so that both the users and the administrators of the facility are liable to be subject to arrest. Some former addicts are in agreement with that idea saying that this is essentially an organized culture of death.
“We’re talking about a government-sponsored shooting gallery,” said Mike Gimbel, an addiction specialist who became drug czar in Baltimore County after a harrowing battle with drugs. “It’s misguided. The addict is going to say: this is cool, a place I don’t have to worry about the cops. Why should an addict stop if there are no consequences for their behavior?”
With that in mind, more research and philanthropy are needed to grant solutions to the ongoing problem. Gimbel added, “We all recognize we’re not going to be able to arrest our way out of this problem.”
Myrick knows monitored injection centers will be a difficult selling proposition in Albany, let alone in Washington, D.C., yet his political ideology mirrors what public consensus seems to indicate is an ever-growing perception that the war on drugs has been a complete disaster.
“I think for a lot of people this is going to sound like a weird concept – ‘Aren’t you just encouraging them to use drugs?'” he said. “But I think it’s more possible now than at any time in our history. The opioid epidemic is affecting more people and we know we can’t wait any longer for the federal government to do something.”